You're So Annoying: A Guide for Parents to Make Sense of a Changing Teenage Brain

“Ugh, you are so annoying”, mumbled the teen as he walked away from his mom.

The new rallying cry of so many misunderstood teens has surely infiltrated your home too. As a high school history teacher for 7 years, I would say that annoying is the one word that summed up frustrated teens views of their parents most often.

What gives? Why are parents “so annoying” to teens? Because we have forgotten what it is like to be one of them. Our brains have literally changed so we can no longer understand their infatuations, risk taking and impulsiveness. In place of earnest empathy we hold them to adult standards and then continuously butt heads when they fail to meet them.

Parents long for the days when their children looked up to them and asked for help. Through the teenage years, they are asserting themselves in contradictory ways that make you want to pull your hair out instead of pull them close. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As their mindset continues to grow and mature, your’s needs to stay flexible as well. New brain research has shown that previously held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation were way off.

The potent cocktail of hormones that deliver visible changes to a teenagers body are also affecting the brain. Teens are more prone to engage in high-risk behavior, develop substance abuse or be diagnosed with mental disorders.

Some scary facts:

What changes during the high school years that creates such staggering stats? The answer is the brain.

Reward Seeking

Teens have a much higher sensitivity to rewards than children or adults. You may think smaller children display greater joy, but think about the time your toddler enjoyed the box more than the present that was inside it. Children do not differentiate as well between levels and values of rewards. Teens however are more complex in their reward seeking and will act impulsively to get the immediate reward, even if they cognitively know it is bad for them in the long term.

One study monitored children’s brains aged 10-12 as well as teenagers from 14-19 while playing a video game. The results showed that teens had increased sensitivity to rewards as well as a lack of impulse control. No big shocker, but what was unique about the study was that they differed so greatly from younger children.

This heightening of sensitivity could be a last evolutionary push for teens to become more aware of what is good and bad behavior to survive in the world, but it becomes complicated by our modern society. Teen brains go through a process known as remodeling, which “prunes” certain older neural pathways and replaces them with new ones at the same time that they are asserting independence, which naturally causes trust issues between teens and parents.

Essentially, our brains mature from back to front, and our “older, animal brains” are in the back. Critical thinking, judgement and impulse control are some of the last parts of the brain to be rounded out.

Neuroscience, like a teenage brain, is continually developing deeper connections but at present, there are still many holes in our understanding. Still, recognizing that your issues with your teen are not all derived around respect and authority may help you to come to better solutions.

As a parent you can:

  • Shift Your Expectations. Teens are going to mess up. It is part of the learning process. Expect that they will stumble and be there to support them when they do. Turn failures into learning experiences.

  • Promote Positive Risk Taking. Not all risk-taking is bad. This is how we grow and learn. A risk is a situation that could end in failure or discomfort. Encourage your teen to explore new situations like volunteering, getting a part-time job, or playing a competitive sport. Engineering a safe environment for your teen to take risks and fail or succeed can help to build lifelong character.

  • Discuss Their Changing Brains. Teenagers need to be included in the solution. Be realistic and acknowledge their growing independence while making clear the difference between negative and positive risk taking. Non-judgemental acceptance is an important factor towards building trust between you and your child. Remind them as author Minna Antrim wrote over a hundred years ago, “Experience is a great teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.”

  • Let Them Sleep In. Chemically, their clocks are shifting towards staying up and waking later. Unfortunately, many schools don’t account for this change with elementary level start times between 7-8 am. The weekends are their one refuge to align with their biological clocks. The National Institute of Health categorized young adults as a population at high risk for problem sleepiness, so do what you can to help them get as much sleep (8-9 hours a night) as possible. A full night of sleep can help students retain information learned the day before better and make better decisions the next.

  • Teach Presence. Teaching mindfulness practices like focused breathing, meditation or keeping a gratitude journal can help your teen stay positive under pressure. When impulsive or risky behavior crops up, they will have tools like presence and clarity of mind to deal with the stress.

Of course, their is no silver bullet to protect your teen as their brain remodels. Resist the urge to swaddle them in bubble wrap and lock them away in their room. Instead, treat them as the emerging adult they are becoming. One eye on their future, and one firmly planted on them and their new reality. In doing this, you can become a little less “annoying.”